SURPLUS NERVOUS ENERGY

(from "Imagine a Place Where Ideas Have No Boundaries," Emergences, May 2002)
Paul Zelevansky

Actions which are usually referred to as play, curiosity, self-expression, investigation, and so forth, come into this category of self-rewarding activities. Most of them are basically physical, motoric outbursts and are fundamentally similar to human gymnastics and sports, except that they lack any ulterior motives such as the obtaining of health, money or social standing. They may inadvertently keep the animal mentally and physically healthy and thus indirectly assist it in its struggle for survival, but the actual driving force behind these self-rewarding activities appears to be simply the unleashing of surplus nervous energy.
(Desmond Morris, The Biology of Art, 1961, 144)

In his 1961 book, The Biology of Art, Desmond Morris makes the case for the biological, and therefore essential, roots of art-making and aesthetics. While his evidence and analysis are largely focused on a series of formal studies with chimps and gorillas beginning in the early years of the century and continuing up through his own work in the 1950s, there is also an attempt to compare the art work of apes with that of young children. Using categories of mark-making advanced through the work of art-educator Rhoda Kellogg, Morris traces the parallel paths of apes and children as early scribbles--refined, extended, combined and formed into aggregates--become the building blocks of representation. Not surprisingly, studies show that ape artistry drops off well before figuration, but Morris is only interested in the relative skills of apes and humans to the extent that they point to commonalities in attitude and approach. His answer to the question of why apes become engrossed in picture-making in the absence of immediate, no less future, material gain is that such activities are "self-rewarding." That is, picture-making meets the kind of need which can be satisfied through kinetic expression alone. Whether this means the "unleashing of surplus nervous energy" for apes, or a return to primal roots of creation for adult artists, art is seen as a shaped manifestation of internal impulses. Further, in characterizing the evolution of drawing skills as an independent and private association "between the paper, the pencil and the brain" (122), Morris identifies the impetus for the earliest explorations in pictorial creation as conceptually apart from engagement with phenomena in the external environment.

Art-making thus becomes both an instinctual and mysterious process that, as it moves away from figuration towards abstraction for adult artists, serves largely elusive, aesthetic goals. It should be remembered that Morris wrote The Biology of Art in 1960, in the wake of the rise of Abstract Expressionism which fed public cynicism about Modernist non-objective images that even monkeys could apparently reproduce. The successful exhibition and marketing of works by selected chimp and gorilla artists, whether the result of zoological studies or carnival hype, were a reflection of public fascination with "performing" animals, basic suspicion about the sincerity of the human artists with whom the apes were sometimes compared, and in the case of an event initiated by Morris, a desire to explore basic ape/human affinities.

Monkeys have been used in books, films and television to represent the best and the basest of human behavior (from loyalty and service to the unconflicted focus on bodily functions), and the image of the monkey as surrogate artist brings into focus characterizations applicable to both. Morris' pairing of the chimp and the artist provides a pointed, if unintended, picture of some of the myths informing public notions of artistic creation. At the very least, what chimps and artists seem to share--as painters and social beings--is unmediated, intimate contact with the fertile, if not febrile, sources of self-expression. Yet artists are caught in a double bind, as art training requires the balancing of focused discipline and unmediated impulse. Congo, the monkey artist in the above photo, is characterized as undisciplined and distracted from his assigned creative task. The artists and judges featured in a detail from a word scramble puzzle (The New Mexican, 8/18/01) while they might also stand in judgment of the monkey, are assumed to be foolish in their own right for believing in some quantifiable aesthetic knowledge. Dressed in circa 19th century artist clothing--smocks, bow ties and berets--they are pictured entranced and bewildered before a set of abstract paintings, the nature of their dilemma the key to the puzzle's solution. For this trope to be effective, average newspaper readers are expected to be in on the folly of trying to evaluate abstract art, but they must still unscramble a code that the cartoonist controls. From the cartoonist's perspective, what is elusive about the puzzle is just a good-natured game. In contrast, the meaning claimed for the art on display is an affront to common sense values. Newspaper readers are--like Congo--set up as both insiders and outsiders before a test. Invited to participate in a ritual of normative behavior, yet manipulated by authorities that define the boundaries of skill and knowledge.

That monkeys and artists both act on their impulses in surprising, even idiosyncratic ways, makes them both charming and bizarre, alternatively available for idealization, suspicion, or ridicule. At work and play, monkeys and artists can be made to represent both democratic ideals of spirited individualism, and the subversive, anti-consensus excesses of the fringe, but outside the zoo, or art school, conditions can get rough. Throughout the popular Curious George book series by H.A. Rey, the monkey George--often despite the tutelage and forbearance of his friend, the "man with the yellow hat"--gets into conflict with the world of humans. Whether he is unaware of common sense and propriety, or just having a good time, George's curious nature leads him into trouble. In Curious George Gets a Job (1947), George escapes from the zoo by stealing the attendant's key, and after hitching a ride on top of a city bus, sneaking into a restaurant kitchen and overturning a pot of spaghetti, is befriended by the forgiving chef who helps him to get a job washing windows on a skyscraper. Looking through various windows as he cleans, George notices a pair of house painters working in an apartment and this piques his curiosity. When they leave for lunch, he climbs into the apartment and begins to paint a jungle scene with palm trees and animals on the walls. As the text emphasizes, he even paints a picture of himself on one of the trees.

The painters return, George runs, and climbs down the long fire escape, but falls from the bottom-most rung and breaks his leg. After a stay in the hospital, and a mind-altering encounter with an overdose of ether, George is rescued by the Man in the yellow hat who gets him a job at a movie studio, where he gets to play himself in a documentary about his life. This story could be seen as a triumph of the American dream with George in the role of a playful, undocumented alien given amnesty by the INS. With the right connections and a willingness to be civilized and exploited, celebrity can be your reward. But the incident in the apartment pictures an attack on bourgeois respectability. George, as untamed artist, claims the walls of the apartment for unmediated personal expression. That this vandalism is a visual evocation of his roots is poignant. It is also an insertion of the jungle into domestic life.

In the context of American society what remains radical about what the art school does is that it consciously hands over the pedagogical apartment to its students and lets them mark the walls with their own curiosity and ambition. That most who try to sustain this act outside will hit the ground hard is a problem that the schools may choose not to deal with, rhetorically or practically. But inside the walls, imagine a place where surplus nervous energy can be applied to ideas without boundaries.